Sankofa. It’s a West African Adinkra word meaning “return and get it” — looking back on the past and learning from it.
The youth in Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility’s African-American group liked this term so much that they adopted it as the name of their organization.
“I’ve told them that the more you learn about your history and culture — about how your ancestors fought against injustices, how they held their head up high even when they were being demeaned — the more you can have a sense of pride and move forward. If they did those things, then why can’t we do the same?” said Kym McKandes, a skills development coordinator at the facility.
It was McKandes who introduced the youth to Sankofa, and who helped guide them this February as they commemorated Black History Month.
McKandes is a liaison with OYA’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR), which works to ensure that youth receive services and programs that are appropriate to their culture.
Learning about their culture and sharing it with others is an important part of the youths’ rehabilitation, McKandes said.
“It’s important for them to learn about our history, not only so they don’t repeat mistakes, but so they understand they have more to live for,” he said. “There is a future, and they don’t only have to live in the now. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t know where we’re going.”
Rogue Valley was one of six Oregon Youth Authority facilities that held Black History Month celebrations this month. The others were Camp Riverbend in La Grande, Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility in Burns, both OYA facilities in Tillamook, and MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.
In the weeks leading up to their event, MacLaren youth met in the evenings to plan and prepare. The youth, part of a group called Brothers Reflecting Brotherhood, focused their event on the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted African-American men the right to vote.
At one planning meeting, D. prepared notes for a speech he planned to give about the amendment and its historical impact.
Next to him, J. was choosing questions for a black history trivia game that he would emcee, while M. practiced for a performance where he would share a rap he wrote about his past and his family.
“We just try to share our culture with other people, no matter what color you are,” M. said. “It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are — we’re diverse and we want to share with everybody.”
Artistic performance is an important part of these events, said Roderick Edwards, a multicultural services coordinator at MacLaren who is part of the OIIR team.
“We want to share with the audience how important your voice is,” Edwards said. “If you think about what you are teaching through your music, what you are saying that people are catching on to that is going to affect their life, that’s really powerful.”
In some cases, that meant teaching the youth to flex their creativity by using different words or messages than what they might have done before incarceration.
“Some of the youth come in and their music is all about hustling and doing things that create negativity in the community,” Edwards said. “But at a cultural event like this, they have to tweak their words and express things in a way that’s more uplifting to their community and their race.
“It’s interesting to see the transformation. I don’t think some of the guys thought before that they could make really good music without it being gangster in nature.”
McKandes at Rogue Valley also acknowledged the importance of helping youth re-think the meaning behind the language they use.
The youth in Sankofa have been leading a movement to get all youth at Rogue Valley to stop using the “n” word, including black youth. Sankofa members recently went to each living unit to talk with their peers about the negative historical use of the word. They urged youth to use more positive language instead.
“At first you could tell a lot of them weren’t feeling it,” said M., who is part of Sankofa. “They were looking at us black kids and saying, ‘You can say it but we can’t? That’s not fair.’
“We said, ‘Hold us accountable, too.’ Then they were more receptive. We talked about how to check each other on it in a nicer way so that everyone doesn’t get mad.”
M. described himself as “an inner-city kid who lived in the ’hood and came from a gang background.” He said he commonly used the “n” word before his incarceration.
“But in a sense it’s like we’re dehumanizing people” when we use that word, he said. “Imagine if you grew up calling them ‘brother’ instead. You wouldn’t want to even put your hands on your brother, let alone harm them. It’s easier for us to go harder on each other if we use the ‘n’ word, instead of calling each other ‘king’ or ‘bro’ or something more uplifting.”
M. and the other youth in Sankofa planned to continue the conversation at the facility’s Black History Month celebration.
The event also included music and a performance by McKandes called “Back In My Day.” Basing the performance on his own grandmother from Mississippi, McKandes dressed like an elderly woman and told stories about what it was like to live through segregation.
Ardell Bailey with OYA’s Community Resources Unit and his mother, Kathy Bailey, also supported the event with a soul food meal cooked from scratch.
M. said the event and other Sankofa activities at Rogue Valley have taught all the youth to have more respect for each other.
“Being in this group has taught me a lot about positive unity,” M. said. “With my background, I’m more familiar with gang culture and negative unity. Here, instead of trying to put each other down, we’re trying to lift each other up.”
More Images from Rogue Valley
The celebration at Camp Riverbend Youth Transitional Facility included a meal of fried chicken, collard greens, and baked beans, cooked by kitchen manager Ryan Alexander and Chef Eric Severson. Photos by group life coordinator Hugh Johnson and the Riverbend photography club.